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QUESTION: In a fiction story, how soon do you recommend the first catalyst event occurs? How much background information can a reader reasonably stand before they get bored? I am six chapters in, and keep trying to bring on the catalyst event, but the more I try, the more things I think of that need to come first. Afraid I'm dragging things out. Thanks for the feedback!

ANSWER: Hi Kimberly:

What a great question! The "catalyst" event, also called the "inciting event," is best introduced as early as possible. In my novel, Child of the Cloven Hoof , an unexpected arrival disrupts society and sends the heroine on a long quest to resolve the problem thus created. The arrival is described in the first chapter and is introduced in the first line.

Many readers can barely tolerate any background information before the action starts. Too many writer want to start off with "writerly" descriptions of landscape or setting, which can render a work all but dead on the page. There are exceptions, of course, but it takes a skilled writer to bring it off.

In The Wizard of Oz, the inciting event is the tornado that whisks Dorothy off to Oz. A tornado is a terrifying thing; almost anyone can imagine what it might be like to be caught up in one. This creates instant sympathy for and identification with Dorothy which holds as she and her companions struggle on toward their goals.

A common opening is to take from the plot a dramatic scene in which the protagonist is caught up in a dangerous situation, bring them up to the brink, halt, then go back to explain what brought them to this point. This creates suspense. The critical thing is to grab the reader's attention from Step One and fasten their sympathies firmly to the character so it holds through the rest of the text.

I hope this has helped. If it has, a nice rating would be greatly appreciated. I am proud of my high scores over 950+ questions.

Good luck, and thank you for writing!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: So, in order to hook the reader, the very first thing they read should be action? Let's say the story is written in first person, and the events are centered around the protagonist's discovery of historical people and places. Could the story effectively begin in third person, describing some event happening long ago in history, by people that the heroine will later learn about or encounter? Seems this would create a yummy sense of irony, if done right. That said... would you recommend setting this up as a prologue situation? With the change in tense, I am afraid a simple Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 transition would be confusing.
Thanks!

Answer
Hi again, Kimberly!

I think, for a beginner, it is always best to start with the protag. in some kind of dangerous situation. For that reason, in your case, a prologue would probably work best. That's what I have done with my book. It is not recommended to halt the action, once it gets going, to stick in a lump of back story. This is called an "information dump" and is discouraged -- at that point the reader may get bored and stop reading. Alternately, you might have your protag. read about this event in a history book or some ancient tome, letter or newspaper, if it is really important to the story, in which case it would have to be truncated so the reader gets through it quickly.

I don't think a transition from 3rd to 1st person would be all that confusing; readers are used to this kind of thing. Of course the prologue must be made so interesting, so compelling, that readers can't help reading it. This can be done by using vivid verbs: instead of "walked," use "lurched," or "stumbled," (your thesaurus can be of help to you here), and also by using a lot of sensory information to set the reader firmly in the scene. You needn't call it a prologue, it can be termed "Long Ago," or "In the Beginning." If you have seen The Exorcist you will remember the opening scene, where the priest meets the demon over a rocky ravine. That was compelling. Of course, it's a lot easier to do in movie form!

You appear to be making great progress on your story. Keep writing, and if you have more questions, do come back.

Best, Susan

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Susan Rand

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I can answer questions about the elements of fiction and non-fiction writing: how to get started, writing techniques, re-writing, etc. I will NOT write for you, do critiques except from my website at http://pygmypress.com, or give you ideas. I will not answer home-or-schoolwork questions in any category. If English is your second language, please say so, and I will make an exception. Please submit no more than one or two questions at once, as I tend to go into detail in my answers.

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I wrote my first book in 1957 and have been writing and studying writing since. I have a BA in Written Communications, and have taught writing both privately and through adult education for 15 years. Have also edited (fiction books) for an online publisher and edited/wrote more than 100 articles for a teen sex education site. Currently writing web content and mentoring beginning writers.

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BA degree in Written Communication

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